Altamaha River Georgia
Altamaha Riverkeeper
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Trouble along the ALTAMAHA

Aug 20, 2005
The Brunswick News

In a way, he doesn't know what he'd do without it. Shortly after moving to the area in 1967 for a civilian job with the Navy, James Holland began fishing in the Altamaha River. He fished year-round, in the summer and the winter, and when not doing that - and when not working - he was often hunting along its shores.

When Glynco Naval Air Station was closed, Holland liked the Altamaha and the surrounding area so much that he "forgot to leave," he said. In 1999, after a 20-year stint as a crabber, Holland grew concerned about the condition and water quality of the river and founded a grassroots environmental organization called the Altamaha Riverkeeper, based in Darien.

After all, it's not just that Holland doesn't know what he'd do without the river. He doesn't know what the region would do without it. "It's very important," Holland said, and noted that it's responsible not only for much of the seafood production - more than one-third, he said - but also tourism, as well.

"I don't know how much money it's worth in recreational tourism, but it has to be a phenomenal amount," he said. "Without fishing and beaches on the coast of Georgia, we don't have a tourism industry."

Gabe Gaddis, a fisheries biologist for the Georgia Department of Natural Resources Wildlife Resources, said the river funnels critical freshwater into estuaries that is essential for fish and crustaceans.

"So it's extremely valuable from an ecological standpoint," he said. "That freshwater flow is essential for maintaining healthy fin fish and crustacean populations."

But those aren't the only perks the river provides, and the Altamaha Riverkeeper isn't the only organization working on its behalf. In the 1960s, the Nature Conservancy began taking steps to protect land in the Altamaha watershed, the massive 14,400-square-mile system that is one of the three largest river basins on the Atlantic Seaboard.

The Altamaha emerges from the confluence of its two main tributaries, the Oconee River, which begins above Athens, and the Ocmulgee, which begins southwest of Athens, near Covington. Originating near Hazlehurst, the Altamaha winds 137 miles toward Darien, where it dumps 100,000 gallons of freshwater every second into the Atlantic Ocean.

"It truly is Georgia's mightiest river," said Christi Lambert, the Nature Conservancy's Southeast Georgia conservation director. She also underscored its multiple functions.

"If you step back and look at the recreational opportunities, the fishing and boating, the kayaking, the hunting, you'll see how really important it is to the local economy," she said. "But it's also globally important from a biodiversity standpoint."

With a floodplain up to 5 miles wide at some points, the watershed provides habitats for a number of plants and animals including at least 120 species, such as the red cockaded woodpecker, bald eagle, swallow-tailed kite and gopher tortoise, that are rare or endangered.

The Altamaha also supports 11 imperiled pearly mussel species; seven of which are found nowhere else on Earth. The watershed is home to the only known example of old-growth longleaf pine-black oak forest in the country, as well.

"In the lower regions, it also forms one of highest quality and expansive estuarine and saltwater marsh systems in world," Lambert said.

But the river system faces potential problems. Holland said developers at sites located along the river are not taking steps to protect the environment from stormwater runoff.

"We're not into stopping development," Holland said. "But we want to try to make sure it's done right in order to protect natural resources."

Holland and Lambert have also expressed concern about legislation introduced during the 2005 session of the General Assembly that allows the removal of logs from the bottom of the river for a $10,000 fee.

The logs, some more than a century old, are considered valuable, but Lambert worries about the impact their removal may have on area habitats, especially for mussels.

Dams are another issue. There are several on the Altamaha's main tributaries, the Oconee and the Ocmulgee, which affect water flow. These, too, can be problematic.

Within that flowing water, Lambert said the river supports the largest southern populations of shortnose sturgeon, which is on the federal list of endangered species, and Atlantic sturgeon, which is imperiled. Such fish depend on the flow and quantity of water in the river to migrate and travel to and from their spawning areas.

"If changes in hydrology happen too fast, some species can't respond fast enough to survive," Lambert said. "Many animals are dependent on specific water flows. Changes in flow could result in degradation of the habitat."

For now, though, there are no changes on the Altamaha itself - a good thing, Lambert said, and a fact that at least gives the river something else to brag about.
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